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Planning for a casual dinner party last week, I turned to the summer section of TSOTIK (rhymes with exotic), our family name for Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. There I found recipes for several perfect-for-hot-weather dishes that I hadn’t made in a long time, so I built the evening’s menu around them.

 

Insalata Caprese – Zucchini a Scapece

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Insalata caprese
hardly needs a recipe at all: just pair the best available mozzarella with the best available tomatoes, and offer salt, pepper, and olive oil for diners to dress their own portions. The great white puffball you see above is a very fresh 1½-pound buffalo milk mozzarella, and the red cartwheels around it are local heirloom tomatoes. The combination is always wonderful.

Zucchini a scapece is a classic Neapolitan antipasto that I’ve written about before. For it I lightly floured rounds of zucchini, fried them in olive oil, and marinated them overnight in a simmered mixture of vinegar, water, garlic, and chopped mint leaves. The dish is best when made, as here, with the costata romanesco variety of zucchini, the prince of the summer squash family.

 

Fettuccine all’Abruzzese

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If you think this bowl of pasta looks as if there’s barely any sauce on it, you’re right. There isn’t much. But this simple peasant dish always surprises people by how unexpectedly delicious it is. The sauce is just a sauté of finely chopped pancetta and onion; chopped basil and parsley, salt, and pepper; with a little broth stirred in and nearly evaporated. The fettuccine – homemade, and rolled very thin: that’s essential – are tossed first with grated pecorino cheese and then with the sauce. The pasta readily absorbs the sauce, and the diners just as readily absorb the pasta.

 

Abbacchio in Umido – Ciambotta

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For the book I translated this meat recipe as “Summertime Lamb Stew” because, in Italian, in umido means stew, but there are no substantial vegetables in it, as there are in most cold-weather stews. It’s simply chunks of boneless lamb shoulder braised in tomato sauce, with seasonings of chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and marjoram. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get really young lamb these days, so the dish can take much longer to cook than the recipe suggests. Not a problem, though: just start early – even a day in advance – simmer however long it takes until the lamb is tender, and reheat it when needed. This is a reliable dish: It’ll be fine.

To accompany the vegetable-less lamb stew, I made a big sauté of summer vegetables from the greenmarket: eggplant, celery, onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. We also had plenty of crusty bread available to soak up the delicious juices they generated, along with the equally good sauce from the lamb.

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The dinner wasn’t confined to these three courses. We also had a few hors d’oeuvres before coming to table, a cheese platter after the lamb, and a simple dessert of homemade lemon ice with cookies. Altogether, a very relaxed and comfortable summer repast. And Tom had picked out five wines from his collection to match with the food. He has written about those wines on his own blog.

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On our Rhône cruise a few weeks ago, Tom and I took one evening away from the boat to dine at Le Gibolin, a restaurant in Arles about which we’d read many good things. I’m away on a trip again now, so for this week’s post I’ll copy out the entry I made in my travel journal about the perfectly splendid evening we had there. I’ll add that it followed upon an uncomfortably cold, wet day of touring.

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All today’s misery was amply redeemed by the most delightful dinner we have had in almost forever. Le Gibolin, on a tiny street in Arles, to which through a wicked rainstorm we were taken by a very pleasant young taxi driver, is the answer to a dream. Twenty covers, maybe four staff members, décor preponderantly bottles of wine, run by a most formidable but handsome woman, who was first very annoyed with us for arriving 20 minutes too soon, while staff dinner was still happening. (But then, why was the “open” sign on the door?) We were welcomed by the little dog of the house, however, and Madame’s anger didn’t extend to sending us back out into the rain. We were allowed to sit at our table and wait.

In time, Madame relented and placed the big chalkboard menu before us. It looked fabulous: classic Provençal dishes. Two courses for €28, three for €35, with five or six options each for entrée and plat.
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Our choices mollified her a bit, as did our request for her to select us glasses of wines for each course and – as the meal progressed – Tom’s knowledge and appreciation of them.

I had a croustillant de pieds et tête de cochon to start, and Tom had pâté de campagne. Impossible to imagine better of their kind. Even the cornichons were amazingly good. My dish had a green condiment so intriguing I had to know what the herb in it was. Madame seemed pleased to be asked. It was tarragon, but it didn’t at all taste of licorice. How did they do that?!
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The first wine she poured for us was a 2015 Cairanne from Oratoire Saint Martin, made from Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah. (Tom has more to say about the wines in his blog.)

Our main courses were, for Tom, poitrine de veau rôtie aux épices douces, and for me, carré d’agneau de Provence rôti. (€4 extra for the lamb.) Both, again, as lovely as could be imagined.
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Madame asked if we’d like more of the same wine with this course and we said no, a different one, please. So she brought a Côtes du Rhône from the same maker, called Les P’tit Gars, which was a blend that she said had more Mourvèdre. An amazing step up in richness from the first.

As we ate our main course, the petit chien of the house, who had been quietly sitting under the table next to our feet all the while, began gently tapping at our legs to remind us of his patient attendance. We each rewarded him with a few tidbits. Later he sought out other patrons, but came back when we ordered cheese.

We each received a whole little round of a goat called Pelardon – young, fresh, and intensely good. Le petit chien didn’t get any of them.
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With the cheese, we asked for yet another different wine and received an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône, made from old vines and with Alicante as the main component of the blend. Alas, we didn’t catch its maker’s name. It was brighter and more acidic than the previous wines – great with the cheese.

Madame was in full charity with us by now, and when after ordering a marc de bourgogne and an eau de vie de poire that she had declared was extraordinaire, we asked to purchase a bottle of the poire, we were definitely personae gratae. Without that €65 bottle, our bill came to €131, no single cent of which we begrudged. It was a magnificent dinner. Oh, that we could come back another time!

When our faithful taximan returned to pick us up, the rain had finally stopped, and I tried to get a picture of the restaurant. Not much luck – too dark on the street.
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After a short ride through the quiet town, a supremely satisfied couple stumbled up the gangplank to our boat at about 11 p.m.

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I should have been in Spain today.

For months, Tom and I had planned to spend this week in Madrid. Then came the government shutdown. Overstressed air traffic controllers (those who hadn’t called in sick) were working double shifts. TSA screening lines were lengthening. Airplane maintenance crews weren’t working. Flights were being delayed, rerouted, cancelled. Though the shutdown ended (for now), its consequences were still looming. With the addition of potential threats from this winter’s polar vortex, it just seemed that too many things could go wrong with this trip. We’d go to Spain another time.

So here I was at home, thinking of the wonderful Spanish food I’m missing. What else could I do but put together a fine dinner from my Spanish cookbooks as a consolation prize?

For the centerpiece of my dinner menu I chose Lomito de cordero relleno de hongos: a roasted rack of lamb stuffed with mushrooms and scallions, from Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mama. The book’s picture of the dish was enticing:

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Happily, I had a small lamb rack in the freezer, just the right size to serve two. When it was defrosted, Tom carefully cut slits in the meat so that when the chops were cut apart each would have a layer of stuffing in the middle.
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He also minced ¾ cup of mushrooms and ¼ cup of scallions for me for the stuffing. I sauteed them in olive oil until the mushrooms were softened; salted and peppered them; poured on 2 tablespoons of Madeira, and cooked until it evaporated. (The recipe actually wanted a sweet sherry, but I had an open bottle of Madeira, which was close enough.)

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I stuffed that filling into the slits in the lamb rack, put it in an oiled baking pan, sprinkled on salt, pepper, and dried thyme, and drizzled olive oil over the meat.
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Meanwhile I was also making two easy vegetable dishes to accompany the meat. These were zarrangolo murciano – zucchini stewed with onion – a recipe from Teresa Barrenechea’s book The Cuisines of Spain, and patatas pobres – poor man’s potatoes – from Penelope Casas’s first cookbook, The Foods and Wines of Spain.

The zucchini dish needed two saute pans: one for slowly softening minced onions and garlic in olive oil, the other for cooking diced zucchini, also in olive oil, until it had rendered up its liquid. That done, the recipe called for draining the zucchini, transferring it to the onion pan, salting, peppering, and cooking everything together for just five minutes. The separate cooking allowed each vegetable to retain its own character, while the final mixing just gently blended the flavors.

The potatoes, sliced very thin, also simmered in olive oil, in a covered pan, being turned often enough to keep them from caking together. I turned up the flame at the end to brown them lightly, then tossed them with minced garlic and parsley. (But I forgot to photograph them: my bad.)

Now back to the lamb. After the stuffed rack had 15 minutes in a 400° oven, I poured a little white wine and lemon juice into the pan and roasted for 10 more minutes. That was all the cooking it needed. I was pleased to see that it came out looking not totally unlike the book’s picture.
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The chops and their stuffing were heavenly together, in both aroma and taste. The meat was still rare enough to please two serious carnivores, and the two vegetables made good flavor contributions, with a lightly sweet allium presence knitting the components together. This combination of recipes made a harmonious plate, hearty and satisfying, but with elegance and complexity.
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Tom gave us a very good Spanish wine from his wine closet – a 12-year-old Prado Enea grand reserve Rioja from Muga – to drink with the meal. It made an excellent companion to the lamb, being elegant and complex in itself, even though El Exigente would have wished it ten years older.

Finally, to complete our consolation-for-Spain meal, after coffee and clean-up we poured snifters of 1866 Gran Reserva Brandy. We discovered this wonderfully intense, aromatic after-dinner drink on a trip to Spain four years ago and brought back a bottle, which we’ve been doling out for special occasions ever since. It isn’t sold in the USA, and the shipping cost from Spain is prohibitive. We’d been counting on buying at least two more bottles in Madrid this week. Alas, it wasn’t to be. One more reason to reschedule that trip!
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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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fortunato-3

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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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checchino-1-1

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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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padelotto.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

maialino-arrosto.

At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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Cassoulet for Christmas

My Christmas dinner this year emphasized heartiness rather than elegance. The main course was a big pot of cassoulet with lamb, garlic sausage, and duck confit. We were going to eat as if it were frigid winter outside, despite what the thermometer had been saying.

Cassoulet

Actually, my cassoulet recipe somehow got away from me this time. That’s a seven-quart pot, and there were only four of us dining. Some time ago I’d created a small recipe, much simplified from Julia Child’s version in Mastering, Vol. I, for a cassoulet for two. All I did this time was double it, but it certainly grew! Here are the components:

ingredients

The intimidating size of the dish was mostly because of the quantity of beans, I think. Rancho Gordo says its cassoulet beans are bred from original French Tarbais stock, which is the classic cassoulet bean. When I gave them an overnight soaking two evenings before Christmas, they swelled enormously. The next day, when I cooked them with onion, bacon, pork skin, garlic, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, and clove, they “swole” even more. Sampled, they already tasted delicious. They went into the refrigerator overnight.

Also that day in advance, I cooked chunks of lamb shoulder with onion, wine, broth, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. That stew also reposed in the refrigerator overnight, developing its flavor.

So by Christmas Day all the heavy work had already been done, and I had only to drain the beans, put them in the big pot, stir in the lamb and its liquid, tuck in slices of French-style garlic sausage and confit duck legs, add a little of the bean soaking liquid, and put the whole thing into a 375° oven for about an hour. I also boiled little German butterball potatoes in their jackets, to serve alongside.

cassoulet 1

That array of meats and beans made hefty platefuls, almost staggeringly rich and succulent. We bravely worked our way through them and, at the end, were surprised by how much we had managed to eat. Still, there were ample leftovers to look forward to in the days ahead.

Combined with a first course of coquilles St. Jacques nantaise and followed by a cheese course, a pear sorbet and Christmas cookies, plus, of course, wines from Beloved Spouse’s collection, that cassoulet made it a merry Christmas meal indeed.

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Making a meal of dishes featured in Andrea Camilleri’s novels about the Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano seems to have become an annual event for me.

When, in the middle of an investigation, our hero is struck by “his customary wolflike hunger,” the meals he eats are described with such gusto that I’d give montalbano cookbookanything to be able to join him at the table. That not being possible, my next choice is to page through Stefania Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri and plan a dinner around some of that cookbook’s recipes. I’ve written about my results here four times in the past four years; so to keep up the tradition, here’s this year’s installment – one dish from each of three of the novels, which I made for a small dinner party with friends who are also Montalbano fans.

Sfincione

With aperitifs in the living room, I made a sfincione, which is a kind of focaccia or thick-crust Sicilian pizza, very popular even here in the US, that’s mentioned in Excursion to Tindari. Montalbano himself doesn’t eat this. He hears about it from a garrulous old citizen he’s questioning, who tries to describe the entire meal his nephew, who lives in Tindari, served him on the day of the titular excursion – starting with a sfincione.

Sfincione

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The book’s recipe calls for already-risen bread dough (purchased, presumably), into which you are to knead grated pecorino, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. I made my own dough, using my favorite focaccia recipe. I pressed it into a pan, spread over it a quickly made tomato-onion sauce, dotted it with bits of anchovies, strewed on shavings of caciocavallo cheese, and baked it in a hot oven until just barely done.

I did all this early in the day, so in the evening all I had to do was add a topping of fine breadcrumbs sauteed in olive oil and return the pan to the oven for 10 minutes. Cut into small squares, the sfincione was a very tasty snack. We made short work of it.

Sfincione finishing

 

Polpettine di polipetti

Of the day’s three dishes, this was the most unusual one, which I was most eager to make: octopus croquettes. One of Montalbano’s two favorite restaurants is the eponymous trattoria of his friend Calogero. In The Smell of the Night he arrives there at lunchtime with that wolflike hunger of his and eats spaghetti in squid ink followed by a dozen fried octopus meatballs. They sounded fascinating, but since I had never even heard of making croquettes from octopus, much less tasted any, I didn’t want to chance them as the main course of my dinner party, so I made them as a hot antipasto.

It was quite a production. Here are the main stages:

Polpettini

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I had already-cooked octopus tentacles in the freezer, left over from a previous cooking event. We put them through the meat grinder (those are Tom’s hands in the picture) and I mixed in grated pecorino cheese, bread soaked in white wine and squeezed almost dry, garlic, parsley, and an egg. I shaped the mixture into balls, put them in refrigerator for a few hours to firm up, dipped them in egg and then breadcrumbs, and fried them. All this this was early in the afternoon. At dinner time I reheated the croquettes in the oven.

Alongside, we served cut-up lemons and a spicy tomato sauce (Tom’s idea and invention). With great curiosity, everyone tasted them. Oh, dear! While they were perfectly acceptable croquettes, they had no flavor of octopus. Squeezes of lemon brought out a hint of it, but so mildly that the basic ingredient could have been any white meat – chicken, pork, veal, even alligator or rattlesnake. I suspect it was the pecorino that masked the flavor of the octopus, but you couldn’t even taste cheese as such. We all ate a few, but the dish was a letdown – edible, certainly, but far from exciting. I can’t believe Calogero wouldn’t have made it better.

Agnello alla cacciatora

Every reader of the novels knows that Montalbano would much rather dine on fish than meat. He doesn’t get that choice on an occasion in The Voice of the Violin: Calogero’s place is closed that day and he tries La Cacciatora, an osteria 20 kilometers inland from the coast. When the proprietor asks him what he’ll have, Montalbano says “Bring me whatever you like.”

He receives a fiery hot pasta to start, followed by the house’s lamb hunter’s style. He likes it, particularly enjoying the “pleasant fragrance of onion and oregano.” That made me a bit suspicious of the cookbook’s recipe, which contains black olives, capers, celery, red wine, tomato paste, only a little onion, and no oregano. (I added some at the end.)

lamb cacciatora

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It was a pleasant enough lamb braise. But it would have seemed much more Sicilian to us – and probably more interesting – if it had been made with swordfish rather than lamb. I’ll bet Montalbano would have liked it that way too.

The lamb I cooked a whole day in advance, since stews and braises generally taste better if given some time for their flavors to develop and blend. Which they did, but not in a way as to really excite our palates. On the positive side, none of these three dishes seemed to have been at all harmed for having been done in advance and reheated. A very useful attribute for a busy dinner-party cook.

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My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

P.S. Tom’s blog has a post on some of the wines we drank in Spain.

 

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